A Brief History of Narcocorridos

Unless you live in northern Mexico or you’re a Mexican-American living in any of the border states, chances are you’ve never heard of American singer-songwriter Gerardo Ortiz. And yet, if you were to measure popularity by an artist’s YouTube views and subscribers, then Gerardo Ortiz would be twice as popular as Madonna. His 2013 hit “Dámaso” from the Latin-Grammy nominated album “El Primer Ministro” has over 140 million views on YouTube. Gerardo Ortiz sings narcocorridos, Mexican folk ballads about famous drug lords, their exploits, lifestyle, and the drug trade in general.

Ortiz is just one of hundreds of narcocorrido artists that have become incredibly popular in the past decade. Another such artist is Alfredo Rios, better known as El Komander who is part of a sub-genre of narcocorridos called ‘movimiento alterado’, or ‘altered movement’. Unlike the narcocorridos, these songs go beyond chronicling the lifestyle and adventures of drug dealers and instead go into very explicit detail on beheadings, torture, and kidnappings that are so commonplace among the narcos.

Con cuerno de chivo y bazuka en la nuca
volando cabezas al que se atraviesa
With an AK-47 and a bazooka around my neck
blowing off the heads of whoever gets in our way

Where did this music come from and how did it become so unbelievably popular among millions of people? Narcocorridos have been around for a long time and have gone through several important transformations, and as their popularity increased, it came to draw the attention of authorities. The glorification of the violence and the narco-lifestyle has been major pain in the side of the Mexican authorities who have repeatedly sought to censor such music. This attempt at censorship has drawn a lot of comparisons between narcocorridos and gangster rap from the 1980’s. El Komander has even been called “the Jay Z of Mexican drug balladeers.

Corridos have a long history in Mexico, starting from the Mexican War of Independence in 1810 and throughout the Mexican Revolution (1910–1921). The ballads usually told stories about oppression by the government and usually carried hidden political meanings as was common during the revolution. They were also about the daily lives of peasants and sometimes about a lost or disgraced love. In fact, you’ve probably heard one of these corridos before.

Ballads about smuggling appeared in the late 19th century, when the government of president Porfirio Diaz imposed tariffs on fine textiles upwards of 300% making the smuggling of textiles from the US into Mexico a very lucrative business. One of the most famous textile smugglers was Mariano Resendez, the subject of one of the first ballads about contraband. Resendez, like the subjects of many corridos, was considered a hero among the communities in Northern Mexico because of his resistance to government forces. In fact, drug lore is full of such characters. Most famous of which is Jesus Malverde, angel of the poor, patron saint of the narcos, and subject of many narcocorridos.

Although his existence is not verified, Malverde was most likely not a drug smuggler since marijuana and opiates were not illegal during his time (b. 1870 — d. 1909). It wasn’t until 1920 and 1925 that Mexico prohibited the sale and use of marijuana and opiates, respectively. What’s significant about Malverde, is his Robin Hood-esque fame. His story is said to be modeled after Heraclio Bernal (1855–1888) who, quite literally, stole from the rich and gave to the poor. This important trope will remain a significant part of narcocorridos for many decades.

It wasn’t until the 1920’s with the enactment of the 18th Amendment and the subsequent Volstead Act that smuggling really took off. Smugglers known as Tequileros would push rafts full of — you guessed it — Tequila across the Rio Grande and would drive trucks through the desert to smuggle it into the US. In addition to smuggling, corridos at the time also dealt with social issues. As “El Corrido de los Bootleggers” demonstrates, the dire conditions in some parts of Mexico sometimes left people with no other choice but to resort to smuggling.

Me puse a pensar señores
Que trabajo ya no había
Tenía que buscar mi vida
Si el señor me concedía
I started thinking, gentlemen
There is no more work
I have to find my life
If the Lord would grant me

When prohibition ended in 1933, the Tequileros suddenly found themselves out of a job and turned to other controlled substances. Drug smuggling took off shortly afterwards and with that came the first drug ballads. One of the first narcocorrido is said to have been “El Contrabandista” written by Juan Gaytán of the “Gaytán y Cantú” band. It perfectly illustrates the shift in the smuggling business.

Comencé a vender champán, tequila y vino habanero,
Pero este yo no sabía lo que sufre un prisionero.
Muy pronto compré automóvil, propiedad con residencia,
Sin saber que en poco tiempo iba ir a la penitencia.
Por vender la cocaína, la morfina y la mariguana,
Me llevaron de prisionera a las dos de la mañana.
I began selling champagne, tequila, and Havana wine,
But I did not know what a prisoner suffers.
Soon I bought an automobile, property with a house,
Without knowing that in a short time I would be going to jail.
For selling cocaine, morphine, and marijuana,
They took me prisoner at two in the morning.

After the initial appearance of drug ballads, there seems to be a gap between the 1950’s and 1960’s, when nothing major happened in the narcocorrido space. This could have been due to the economic prosperity Mexico enjoyed during these decades. The resurgence of narcorridos seems to coincide with the social and economic trouble that enveloped the country at the end of the 1960’s. Another major factor for their resurgence could have been the increase in marijuana consumption in the US during the 1960’s or the increase in heroin traffick due to the collapse of its market in Europe and the Middle East. Whatever it was, the definite turning point for narcocorridos came in 1972 when a song about a now very famous Texan hit the airwaves. The song, by norteño band from Northern California, would mean the rebirth of a genre that would grow to reach millions of listeners on both sides of the border.

Ángel González wrote “Contrabando y Traición” in the mid 60’s and Los Tigres del Norte, a band formed earlier in San Jose, CA recorded it in 1972. The story begins with Camelia “La Texana” travelling north from San Isidro to LA with her partner Emilio Varela, their car tires filled with marijuana. Upon arriving to Hollywood and finalizing the drug deal, Emilio Varela tells Camelia he is leaving her for another woman in San Francisco. Camelia does not take this news too lightly and shoots Emilio, taking off with the money and never being heard of again. Up until then, most of the corridos had been about real events, but Ángel had completely made up the story of Camelia (even though he did happen to know a Camelia who isn’t from Texas and an Emilio Varela, his cousin, who had never met Camelia). Inwriting a fictional song, Ángel set the genre on a new path. Soon after the song’s widespread success, hundreds of writers tried to replicate the formula and it took the popularity of narcocorridos to new heights.

In an interview by author Elijah Wald, González tells how after 30 years he has not been able to come to terms with the song’s enormous popularity and the countless of corridistas it inspired. “That song, I wrote it without thinking, I had no idea what would happen afterward. After my corrido, along came that whole pile of songs about drug traffickers, but I wrote it without any idea of that. It was a problem I brought to light, but not something I knew much about […] I never, never ever thought that the song would make it big.” While it seems like González had a strong moral stance against drug smuggling, it is not clear that the rest of the corridistas and their fans shared the same ideals.

Researcher, Juan Carlos Ramirez-Pimienta says drug trafficking was seen almost as a patriotic duty since it was bringing large quantities of money into Mexico. The economic benefits of the drug trade are of course exaggerated, he says, but it’s not difficult to see how in the minds of a lot of people, drug trafficking was not all that bad, especially during Mexico’s troubled economy. What’s more, the cartels would often give out “narcolimosnas”, or narco-charity to win over the public’s opinion. It’s almost too obvious that the major drug lords would engage in the same type of generosity as legends like Jesús Malverde. If the lower classes in Mexico had social, cultural, financial, and even military backing from the government, it would have been harder for the cartels to win over large segments of the Mexican population (decades later, this sort of justification would no longer be necessary with the “Movimiento Alterado”).

With or without moral justification, the genre exploded and corridos underwent several transformations. The songs shifted from portraying the protagonist as someone who just smuggled drugs into someone who reaped and enjoyed the riches it brought. The smuggler was now someone who consumed drugs and not just smuggled them, someone who enjoyed the lifestyle, someone who through their own brawn rather than their brain rose up from poverty to achieve great success in the form of riches and power. Researcher Helena Simonnet says:

“The changing social reality of Mexico’s Northwest also affected popular music, notably the corrido production. Although the image of the brave man that was generated by the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century still holds for the protagonists of the contemporary corridos, the meaning of bravery has changed. While the heroes of the folk corridos raised their arms for social justice and equality, the tough guys of the narcocorridos carry their weapons for personal enrichment and empowerment.”

No one embodies the quintessential narcocorrido protagonist of the time better than Rafael Caro Quintero. Born in a poor rural town in Sinaloa, Caro Quintero went on to be a billionaire as the founder of the Guadalajara Cartel. His story alone could fill volumes as it involves the CIA, the DEA, the Contras, and billions of dollars stashed in Swiss bank accounts. In the eyes of the people, Caro Quintero was a hero. For one, he was born into a very poor family where he was one of 12 siblings. In his teenage years he began growing and selling marijuana, amassing a small fortune that would later become billions. He also defied the US government in a way that resonated among people living along the border, people who had suffered at the hands of US authorities. And of course, he was known to be very generous having funded large infrastructure projects such as a highway in his hometown of Badiguarato. Hundreds of songs were written about Caro Quintero.

At the same time as corridos were exalting narco-heroes for their generosity, they were also celebrating the lavish narco lifestyle. Mexican authorities, out of fear that these songs would act as recruitment strategies for the cartels, began cracking down and in some places banned these songs from the airwaves. This never proved fruitful since much of the audience resided in the US where freedom of speech laws protected the corridos from any sort of censorship. What’s more, US radio stations have no regard from borders, so people who lived along the border on the Mexican side could still tune in to American radio stations. Censorship even proved advantageous to bands such as Los Tigres del Norte who capitalized on prohibition by marketing their albums as “forbidden”. Despite relatively low airplay in Mexico, their best-selling album “Corridos Prohibidos” (Forbidden Corridos) was hugely successful even thoughthere was nothing “forbidden” about their songs, especially not in the US. Their strategy proved so successful that many other bands followed suit like Los Tucanes de Tijuana’s “Tucanes de Plata: Catorce Tucanes Censurados”.

As the popularity and demand for narcocorridos raged on, in the early nineties, a new phenomenon began to take hold of Los Angeles nightclubs. Many capos, having heard many commercial narcocorridos about the most famous drug lords such as Caro Quintero, decided they wanted to be protagonists of their own corridos, so they started commissioning their own.

Among the most influential commissioned-corridistas was Rosalino “Chalino” Sánchez. As the story goes, Chalino was born in 1960 in rural Sinaloa. When he was five years old, a local tough guy raped his sister. Ten years later, Chalino ran into him at a party and without saying a word walked up to him and shot him dead. Soon afterward he fled Sinaloa and moved to LA to live with his aunt. In LA he would work several jobs including low-level smuggling which would connect him to the narco-world. In 1984, his brother, Armando, was shot and killed in Tijuana and Chalino would write his first narcocorrido to preserve his memory. Soon afterward he found himself serving jail time where he would write songs about his fellow inmates in exchange for money or favors. Word spread of his writing talents and after his release he found himself in high demand among low-level narcos who would pay him cash to produce cassettes with their ballads performed by a band. While still a relatively local phenomenon in southern California, his big publicity break came in early 1992 when, while singing at a club in Coachella, someone came up to the stage and shot Chalino on his side. Chalino pulled out his gun and shot back. By the end of the shootout, the would-be assassin would end up dead, shot in the mouth with his own pistol. News coverage of the shooting made him a sensation on both sides of the border. Months later, Chalino’s luck ran out when after a concert in Culiacán he was killed after being picked up by a group of armed men. He became the Mexican version of Tupac Shakur. Chalino’s death elevated him to legendary status. Hundreds of songs were written about him, his song “Nieves de Enero” became a radio hit, and soon the narcocorrido genre was flooded with imitators.

The narcocorrido trend continued throughout the nineties. While Mexico was enjoying a period of relative peace, so were the corridos. All that seemed to change when Felipe Calderón took office in 2006. Soon after Operation Michoacán in December of the same year, the country turned violent and so did the corridos, and with that came the birth of the Movimiento Alterado. Although now used as a generic term, Movimiento Alterado (“altered” movement, as in the altered state of your brain, supposedly) was a product of Adolfo and Omar Valenzuela, owners of Twiins Music Group who produced a lot of corridos alterados through their subsidiary La Disco Music. Unlike narcocorridos before them, this new breed of corridos was hyper violent, with lyrics about blowing people’s heads off and killing those who deserved it.

Even though there is a clear difference between older corridos and new corridos “alterados”, artists from this new movement seem to disagree with critics who say their songs promote violence. Singer-songwriter El Komander has said during interviews his songs are about partying and about having a good time, not about promoting violence. But the truth is that the festive corridos El Komander describes have been around since the nineties and it is very difficult to find any songs from that decade that match the level of violence contained in the new corridos.

While it was Calderon’s bloody war that caused the birth of this new genre, it was the increasing adoption of the internet in Mexico that allowed for its spread. The low production costs and essentially free distribution afforded by services such as YouTube allowed hundreds of young people to take risks by exploring new styles and helped them gain new audiences. In the late 1980’s Chalino had to sell cassettes out of the trunk of his car. Nowadays singer-songwriters only need a camera and an internet connection. The internet even serves as a source for inspiration. In the documentary film “Narco Cultura”, BuKnas frontman Edgar Quintero, who lives in LA but seldom travels to Mexico, watches YouTube videos from Mexico to draw inspiration for his own songs.

It is worth noting that at this point in time, not only did artists merely sing about violence, but the violence also came to them in a very real way. Chalino Sanchez popularized the commissioned narcocorrido trend. Unfortunately, he might have also been the first in a long list of ill-fated corridistas. Singing about the narcotrafficking world turned out to be an extremely dangerous profession. Here are some narcocorrido singers who have been killed:

All of these people were killed between 2006 and 2010. During the same period, the Committee To Protect Journalists lists 38 killed journalists. In Mexico, being a narcocorrido singer, is almost as dangerous as being a journalist.

During the past 15 years, narcocorridos have become harder to categorize. They are more complex, dealing with a variety of subjects. Some songs give people an insight into the secret and underground world of narcotrafficking. Others very graphically describe the exploits of the famous capos. Then there are others which are purely about the narco-lifestyle. Narcocorridos are many things: stories, eulogies, praise, and even news sources.

In a country where traditional media is censored via intimidation, through the government, or even self-censorship, millions of people are forced to resort to alternative news sources such as El Blog del Narco. This blog and it’s many re-incarnations and copycats have been extremely popular sources for people who want to get the inside scoop into world of the narcos. Narcocorridos offer people another peek into the secret world of narcotrafficking. Narcocorridos don’t need to act as a source of breaking news to be relevant. They are relevant because they are an important vehicle for distributing information about major events. One recent example is Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman’s second escape from prison. Within hours, corridistas had written, composed, recorded, and uploaded their songs on the internet about El Chapo’s escape.

El Chapo’s escape was widely covered in the news, but a much less covered news story at the time was the death of Atanacio Torres Acosta, son of Manuel Torres Felix “El M1”, a high-ranking member of the Sinaloa Cartel in 2008. His death, which was the result of a rivalry between M1 and the Beltrán Leyva Cartel, left a trail of torture and murder for many weeks and solidified the rivalry between the cartels that would leave thousands dead for years to come. In April of 2008, gang members of the latter killed Torres Felix’s son, Atanasio and injured his 4-year-old sister (apparently she lost half of her right arm). The killing sent Torres Felix into a killing spree, which earned him the nickname “El Ondeado” (The Crazy One). About a month after the killing, two dead bodies appeared in the same location, one of which was found decapitated inside a plastic barrel. A sign next to the bodies read: “These are the homosexual gunmen of Arturo Beltrán Leyva and the guy in the barrel is non other than the childkiller ‘El Caimán’. So you learn to respect. My respects for the children.” At the time very few sources covered the news. However the story is now part of narco-lore partly because of the song “La Venganza del M1”:

Es mi vicio la sangre enemiga
la venganza se me hizo un placer
habra torturas, habra un infierno

El 4 fue valiente mi hijo
fue abatido por unos cobardes
tenian miedo de llegar conmigo

Con un pie presionaba su pecho
con una mano le agarro el pelo
en la otra mano trae un cuchillo
lo decapito les corto el cuello
y dejo junto a el un mensaje
que para los niños su respeto
My vice is enemy blood
Vengeance is my pleasure
There will be tortures, there will be hell

4 was brave, my son
Was killed by some cowards
They were afraid to meet me

With one foot I pressed against his chest
With one hand I grabbed his hair
In the other hand, a knife
I decapitate him, I cut their necks
And I leave next to him a message
To children, you show respect

When these corridos report a story such as the case of El M1’s son, it is hard to verify at the time the accuracy of the events described. It is usually until later that people find out what really happened and we confirm whether the corrido was fact or fiction. If this seems like a less than ideal news source, it is. But consider that the same thing can be said about information received from the government (or lack thereof). If the government knew about the intricacies in the rivalries among the cartels that people have heard through narcocorridos, they did not communicate it. Because of government mistrust and censorship in the media, these alternate mediums such as corridos and El Blog del Narco became a very important source of information for people seeking information about the narco-world.

Narcocorridos, altered or unaltered, promote a long list of morally impure practices such as violence, criminal lifestyles, misogyny, homophobia, etc. But they can’t be merely dismissed as such, for they tell story and culture of the last 100 years for a significant part of Mexico. They are complicated and straightforward, deplorable and worthwhile, uninteresting and fascinating. They are a major part of a culture comprised of millions of people, and they can’t be dismissed as merely “songs about violence” because like them or not, they are here to stay.